ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP)The Tampa Bay Rays have won more games than any other team in the American League over the past two seasons, going about their business with a quiet confidence that has the full attention of the Boston Red Sox.
The AL East rivals meet in a best-of-five Division Series that begins Thursday night at Tropicana Field, with the defending league champion Rays looking to take the first step toward a return to the World Series, where they lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers last fall.
With one of baseball’s lowest payrolls and a roster devoid of big names, Tampa Bay wins with a youthful, selfless blend of defense, pitching and timely hitting that’s served the team well in reaching the playoffs three consecutive years.
After dropping four straight to the Red Sox early in the season, Tampa Bay won 11 of the final 15 meetings on the way to claiming its second straight AL East crown by eight games over big-budget Boston and the even heavier spending New York Yankees.
The Red Sox beat the Yankees 6-2 at home in the AL wild-card game Tuesday night, advancing to face the Rays.
”We have some experience,” center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said Wednesday before turning his thoughts toward a talented collection of rookies who helped Tampa Bay weather a rash of injuries to win a franchise-record 100 games.
Rookie shortstop Wander Franco has played up to his billing as the top prospect in baseball since hitting a homer in his major league debut against the Red Sox in June. Young pitchers Shane McClanahan and Shane Baz, who’s only been in the majors a few weeks, are slated to start the first two games of the ALDS.
”I still feel like the majority of our roster are guys on league minimum. But, man, we breed them differently over here, I promise you that,” Kiermaier said. ”I mean, you got guys like Wander Franco and our starters, depending on who we run out … we got guys who can play.”
The Rays showed that a year ago when rookie Randy Arozarena had a record-setting breakout postseason after Tampa Bay rolled to the best record in the AL during the pandemic-shortened, 60-game regular season.
”I’ve said it throughout this whole year, we do not have a set lineup. Some guys play more than others. But, you know, man, 1 through 26 – doesn’t matter who we put in there, we’ve had guys that have produced throughout this whole year,” Kiermaier said. ”We never relied on one person. There’s a new hero any given day. I think that is just what makes us so fun and dangerous.”
The Red Sox – in the playoffs for the first time since 2018, when they won the World Series – know that all too well.
”I know they won the season series, but if you look at the games, it’s a 1-0 game with a wild pitch in the ninth inning. There was a sun ball at Fenway when we were up 7-1,” Boston manager Alex Cora said.
”I know they’re really good. They have a great team. Coming into the season, a lot of people thought they were the best team in the big leagues. But we feel we have a good team, and we’re here,” he added. ”We’ll show up. We’ll play and see where it takes us.”
ONE STEP AT A TIME
While the ultimate goal is winning the World Series, second baseman Brandon Lowe stressed it’s important Tampa Bay not get away from the selfless approach the Rays have embraced the entire season.
”Don’t change the game, do not put any added pressure. Understand that we’re the best team in the American League, we’re here for a reason,” Lowe said.
”There’s not a guy in the locker room that’s like, `You know what? If I hit 12 homers I’ll be fine with not winning.’ Every single guy is putting the team first,” Lowe added. ”This is the really fun part of the year because personal performance doesn’t matter. I’ll gladly take an 0 for 4 for a win. Up and down our lineup every guy feels that way.”
Left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez (13-8, 4.74 ERA), a 19-game winner two years ago who missed all of 2020 after developing myocarditis following a bout with COVID-19, will start Game 1 for the Red Sox.
”It means a lot, you know, because everything I went through last year and I have the opportunity to throw the first inning in the ALDS. It feels real good,” Rodriguez said. ”It’s just special.”
McClanahan (10-6, 3.43), a 24-year-old lefty who made his major league debut during last year’s playoffs, starts for Tampa Bay.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Nelson Cruz was Tampa Bay’s big acquisition at the July trade deadline. He homered in his debut with the Rays and finished with 13 homers and 36 RBIs in 55 games with Tampa Bay. Overall, he batted .265 with 32 homers and 86 RBIs for the Rays and Minnesota Twins.
Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash lauded the 41-year-old slugger for his leadership on and off the field.
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli was a Tampa Bay player and coach before being hired by Minnesota.
”Talking to Rocco when we acquired him, Rocco said he is going to do a lot of things that you don’t realize he is doing, and I think that has been very fair for the 2 1/2 months he has been here,” Cash said. ”But there’s no secret his addition at the deadline and, obviously, Wander coming about the same time has certainly helped our team become better.”
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